Former N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien used to say that it doesn’t matter how many stars a player has by his name when he arrives in college football, but rather how good he becomes by the time he leaves.
While it goes without saying that a team stocked with highly-rated athletes will stand a much greater chance of success than one with a roster full of projects hoping to overachieve, the basic premise of his philosophy is sound.
If nothing else it the silliness associated with ranking recruiting classes on the day the players are signed.
It’s one thing to judge the relative strength of each team’s haul of incoming talent by the number of three-, four- and five-star players they bring into the program. But the true measure of how good or bad the class is won’t truly be known until the youngsters actually get onto the field and start playing — something three, four or even five years down the road.
A much more realistic way of evaluating things is how effectively each coach addressed the individual needs of his program at that particular time.
By that criteria, East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery hit the ball out of the park with the recruiting class he welcomed into the fold on National Signing Day.
Again, there are no guarantees that all or even a majority of players that faxed in their NCAA letters of intent on Wednesday will pan out and make meaningful contributions to the Pirates at some point in their college careers.
But there’s no questioning that by bringing in a group of players weighted heavily toward filling the most glaring holes in his team’s lineup, Montgomery has given himself the best possible chance of rebounding from last year’s 3-9 disappointment and returning ECU to the prominence it once enjoyed.
The most overt example of this is on the defensive line, where the Pirates’ 2016 pass rush ranked dead last among the nation’s 128 FBS teams with only eight sacks.
In an effort to impact an immediate improvement, Montgomery brought in two junior college linemen with a realistic chance of contributing right away — including one, 6-foot-4, 285-pound Tyree Owens, who has already been exposed to FBS competition after spending a redshirt year at West Virginia. A third pass rusher, three-star freshman Taijh Alston, has enrolled early and is eligible to participate in spring practice, giving him a head start on newcomers that won’t arrive on campus until summer.
While Montgomery and his staff were conscious of the quick fix, they also took steps to strengthen the position group for the long haul by signing two other freshmen linemen, along with three linebackers that can be brought along a little more slowly.
“We brought in eight kids on the defensive front to address that part of our team whether it be the defensive line or the linebackers,” Montgomery said at his Signing Day press conference Wednesday. [Replay press conference audio…] “We think that five will help us immediately in the pass rush. We brought in a total of 11 guys on defense and that group was exactly what we wanted it to be. We want to keep getting longer and keep getting better at tackling in space.”
On the other side of the ball, the Pirates have a need to keep their own quarterback from getting tackled in the backfield quite so much after allowing 31 sacks for 222 yards in losses last season. Starter Philip Nelson’s effectiveness diminished greatly over the second half of the year as a direct result of the physical pounding he took, even on plays in which he got his passes off.
To prevent that from happening again, Montgomery signed three new offensive linemen, again opting for a JUCO to help with the here and now, along with two freshmen who can be foundations for the future.
He also added two running backs with differing skill sets to bolster a rushing attack that ranked 10th in the 12-team American Athletic Conference, four wide receivers to restock the passing game and a three-star dual-threat quarterback in Kingsley Ifedi, who could potentially battle for the starting job in the fall if he grasps the playbook and adjusts to the speed of the college game quickly enough.
In doing so, Montgomery checked off nearly every box on his program’s wish list, all while enjoying the added benefit of keeping some of the state’s best players close to home. Exactly half of the 22 players ECU signed in the class of 2017 played their high school ball in North Carolina.
“Our coaches did a great job at building relationships over the last year,” Montgomery said. “That is the difference between this recruiting class and the last one. Last time through, we were trying to maintain the class that was already here and add a few pieces. This time we had a much better vision of what we had to do to make our team better.”
Or at least give it the best possible chance to get better.
Click the link below to view thumbnail sketches for ECU’s recruiting class of 2017.